In Cardinals, Phillies face toughest [NLDS] test yet

Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia was 13-7 with a 3.56 ERA in 2011. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Please don't mis-interpret or mis-remember what you are about to read. The Phillies are a better baseball team than the Cardinals. They should win this series, just like they've won their previous three National League Division Series. When they do advance to their fourth straight National League Championship Series, I'm sure I will be on the receiving end of many publicly-hurled insults and projectiles.

Hey crap-for-brains! How do you like the Cardinals now?!

And that's great. Better to cover baseball in a town that cares enough about it's sports that the local beat scribe is an object of derision instead of another anonymous byline lost in the swirl of foreboding economic news.

Besides, my answer will be the same as it was in spring training, before Adam Wainwright went down with an elbow injury. I like the Cardinals very much. I like the Phillies much better. But I do like the Cardinals. And I think when you look at the numbers and situations, you have to agree that St. Louis is the toughest NLDS opponent the Phillies have faced since at least 2007.

We'll have plenty more breakdowns of the upcoming Best-of-Five series, but in the name of leaving Midtown Atlanta with enough time to catch my flight back home, here's a quick primer:

1) Cardinals rotation

Jaime Garcia has allowed one earned run in 15 innings against the Phillies this season. He shut them down last season, as well. If you were building a prototype of the pitcher that gives the Phillies fits, his would be a good mold to cast.

The best rotation the Phillies have faced in the first round over the previous three postseasons was the 2008 Brewers. But keep in mind those Brewers were moving in the opposite direction of these Cardinals, struggling through September, firing their manager, and pitching C.C. Sabathia on three days rest in each of his final three starts of the regular season. So, yes, this Cardinals team will not start ace Chris Carpenter in Game 3, just like the Brewers did not start Sabathia until Game 2 in 2008. But Carpenter was not ridden like a racehorse down the stretch, either. Besides, when you are looking at match-ups, Garcia is probably the Cardinals' No. 1 pitcher against the Phillies (again, more on that after I hopefully catch my flight and land safely).

In Game 1 in 2008, the Phillies faced 22-year-old Yovani Gallardo, who was coming off an injury that sidelined him for all but the last four starts of the season. Last year in Game 1, they faced Edinson Volquez, who was coming off an injury that sideilned him for all but the last 12 starts of the season. In 2009, they faced righty Ubaldo Jimenez, who was legit.

In Game 2 this year, they will face Kyle Lohse (3.39 ERA, 1.168 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9), compared with Bronson Arroyo in 2010 (3.88, 1.168, 5.0, 2.5) and Aaron Cook in 2009 (4.16, 1.405, 4.4, 2.7) and Sabathia in 2008 (2.70, 1.15, 8.9, 2.1).

In Game 3, it will be Carpenter (3.59, 1.292, 7.1, 2.1) compared with Jonny Cueto (3.64, 1.276, 6.7, 2.7) and Jason Hammel (4.33, 1.387, 6.8, 2.1) and Dave Bush (4.18, 1.141, 5.3, 2.3).

In Game 4, it would likely be Edwin Jackson (3.79, 1.437, 6.7, 2.8), compared with Volquez, Jason Marquis (4.04, 1.380, 4.8, 3.3) and Jeff Suppan (4.96, 1.542, 4.6, 3.4).

In 2008, the Brewers lost Ben Sheets down the stretch. In 2009, the Rockies lost Jorge de la Rosa down the stretch. Two good breaks for the Phillies.

You can argue that Milwaukee's rotation was better in 2008 because of the track record of Sabathia and the potential of Gallardo, but when you look at the match-ups, the Cardinals are far better in Games 3 and 4 with Carpenter and Jackson than the Brewers were with Bush and Suppan.

Also, this will be the first time since C.C. Sabathia in '08 that the Phillies face a left-handed starter in the first round. That's not the hiccup it once was for this team, but guys like Garcia still give them problems, although the new line-up should help to combat that.

2) Cardinals bullpen

This series could very well come down to how well the Phillies take advantage of St. Louis' porous bullpen. The Cardinals blew a ridiculous 26 saves in the regular season, compared with the Phillies league-best total of nine. Their 64 percent save percentage ranked 10th, compared with the Phillies' league-leading 84. The 2010 Reds and 2008 Brewers both had solid bullpens, while the 2009 Rockies made a couple of late-season editions that fortified their unit. St. Louis finished 11th in the NL with a 3.73 bullpen ERA, compared with the Reds finishing seventh in 2010 with 3.97, the Rockies finishing 13th in 2009 with 4.53, and the Brewers finishing fourth in 2008 with 3.89. But the Cardinals' staff has put up some decent rate numbers, including allowing 29 percent of inherited runners to score (Reds - 34, Rockies -32, Brewers -26).

This is the worst bullpen the Phillies will have faced in the first round.

3) Cardinals offense

A lot depends on the health of Matt Holliday, who left Tuesday's game with an inflamed tendon in his hand. I have not heard an update on his status, but losing Holliday would be a huge blow. Rafael Furcal is also battling a hamstring strain.

If the Cardinals are healthy, they are potent. They lead the majors in runs, batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage. The Reds did the same last year, except for OBP, where they finished second.

4) Experience

This is a huge difference from the previous three offseasons, when the Phillies faced young underdoggish teams. For all their faults, the Cardinals are 20-17 against playoff teams this season. The Phillies are 12-13. The Reds were 7-12 in 2010, the Rockies were 12-19 in 2009, and the Brewers were 10-21 in 2008. Also notable, the Cardinals were 45-36 on the road this season, compared with the Reds' 42-39 mark last year, the Rockies 41-40 in 2009 and the Brewers 41-40 in 2008.

Like I said, the Phillies are the favorites here. Their rotation makes them the favorite in every series they will play. But the Cardinals present a formidable challenge, particularly when you figure that Garcia and Carpenter are on track to start three of the five games of the series. The Phillies' starting pitching advantage can be nullified if the Phillies fail to score and force Charlie Manuel to consider pinch-hitting before he would like to. At that point, it would turn into a battle of the bullpens. The Phillies have the edge their on paper. But the bullpen is also something of a question mark after a shaky September.

That's all for now from your resident fear-mongerer.

Download our NEW iPhone/Android app for easy access to all of our Phillies coverage, plus app-exclusive videos and analysis. Get it here.